The movie Christopher Robin gave us the quote, “Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.” When Switchfoot announced they were taking a break in December of 2017, it started a season of “doing nothing” as a band. However, the very best of something was happening. Families were being strengthened. Roots were deepening. Creativity was renewed. Questions like “Why are we really doing this?” were answered. The break took on a life of its own and became known as the hiatus. Out of the hiatus, Native Tongue was born.
I had the chance to attend the Native Tongue tour as it came through Dallas. The energy in the room was like seeing an old friend for the first time in way too long. The band played songs like they were telling new stories while reminiscing about good times past. It was an incredible night for a sold-out crowd. I got the chance to talk with guitarist Drew Shirley a short time later before their show in Portland, OR.
We've heard a lot about "the hiatus." I read the story about you having to do some house repairs, both metaphorically and physically. What did the band, and you personally, learn in the process of this time off?
Everything has a cost. When you say yes to something, you say no to something else. I think last year, I realized the cost of doing what I do in some ways that I hadn’t known before. I’m gone a lot. I travel for a living. That takes a toll on your body, your relationships, and just your heart. For me, I had to repair some things in my own life. Tour life is a fake world. People applaud you all the time, there’s free food and drinks everywhere, and you’re in this wonderland atmosphere where it’s all good. That’s not real life, because life has problems that need to be addressed and relationships take work. When you put all that on hold, then you find a lot of it there waiting for you when you get back.
I found that last year. I needed to repair some things with my wife, my kids, and my own disciplines in my life. Relationships are built either intentionally or unintentionally. A lot of times, relationships that are built unintentionally are built wrong. You’re coping with things. You’re dealing with things. You’re putting up walls and building a relationship that isn’t built right. It just allows you to cope with what you have to deal with. That’s not good in the long run and that doesn’t work. My wife and I had built some things into our relationship that just were not healthy and not good. We had to tear down and rebuild a lot of those things, and I think I’ll be doing that for the next half of my life, to be honest with you. I think a lot of people can relate to this because it’s not just musicians that deal with this, everybody does.
How did that affect the writing process for Native Tongue?
We put a lot of that into the writing. We were going through that and trying to figure out what’s real. What’s good to write about. What’s worth writing about. What’s worth being away from home to sing about. What songs are so important that we need to write them, not just because we want to put out another record so we can have more of those, but what songs really cut to the core? Songs like “Native Tongue,” the title track, that sings love is our native tongue and where have we gone wrong, as well as strength to let go, really resonate with us. We were letting go of things in our lives that we needed to let go of. Things like that are written into the record, all those themes show up all over the songs.
How would you compare the growth that you had in the hiatus compared to the dozen or so years before that?
We had never taken a hiatus, so it’s totally different. We’ve been touring for 15 years almost nonstop and we've never taken a year off. When one tour ends, we’re planning the next one to begin. The hiatus was a new thing for us. It was scary because we had never done that before. All we’ve ever known is being on the road and to now take a year off, it was terrifying in a lot of ways. Not just for us, but for our families as well. Here’s dad home for a year, like what do I do? What’s my daily life like when I’m not planning to be on the road or traveling. I had to figure that out.
I took a two week vacation at home once and that was the last time that will ever happen. It didn’t end well. We put the kibosh to that pretty quick! (Both laughing.) Has all this changed how you tour? What have you brought on the road with you?
I’d say now, my heart and my identity are back at home and this is just something I go out and do, whereas a lot of my heart and my identity was in being a touring musician before. Now, I’m more grounded, not just so swept away with tour life. I’m just trying to be more mindful of who I am at home as a father and a husband, which is really the core of being a person. Your relationships that ground you are really the core of who you are. What we do as men for our jobs is after that.
You guys have been together so long, I imagine you’re practically brothers at this point. When you got the news about Jerome and his diagnosis, was there a song from Native Tongue that became your anthem through this journey? How did that affect the album?
“Joy Invincible” became that. We didn’t know that it was about Jerome when we wrote and recorded it, but after we wrote and recorded it, Jerome was like “That’s my song!” And we just said, “Yeah dude, that’s totally your song. 'Joy Invincible.'” Basically, hallelujah nevertheless. No matter what the circumstances are with his health and cancer, he was like “I still have joy underneath, and I have hope.” That’s the one that became his anthem, and our anthem for him.
Throughout most of Switchfoot’s career, you’ve had a lot of mainstream recognition, and Native Tongue is no different. How have you guys been able to share the gospel in places that Christian music doesn’t normally reach?
It just happens, man. You live your life as a light and you just shine. Sometimes we plan it, and sometimes we don’t. When I say plan it, we write the songs we write, and then we just go and sing them into the airwaves. They just go out into the fabric of society. When you’re spreading light, it just changes things.
We have people coming to our meet and greets every day that are like, “Your music saved my life, I was on the verge of suicide.” A woman lost her son, and our music carried her through. It was a song called “The Edge of the Earth.” Two people later in the line, literally another couple comes in and goes “We walked down the aisle to get married to one of your songs, and it was “‘The Edge of the Earth!’” The exact same song that a woman literally buried her son from a car accident, a couple walked down the aisle to. It’s crazy how music can mean things to people in different ways. Like you mentioned, the gospel, it’s like something that we’re not in charge of. We just do what we’re supposed to do in putting the music out there and living our lives in an upright way. The rest kinda just happens. I don’t think we pre-plan a whole lot of “We’re gonna go out and change the world right now.” It’s like “No, we’re going to be who we are, take care of who we are, and do what we’re supposed to do.” The other stuff just happens when you write an honest song from an honest place.
Of all the songs throughout the discography from Switchfoot, what’s your favorite song that hasn’t got the most notoriety or the limelight, but means the most to you personally?
Let’s see… One of my favorites is “Dirty Second Hands,” it’s about how time is your enemy sometimes. I played the steel guitar on that and really loved it. Another favorite would be “Take My Fire” from this current record. It’s a big, heavy, single-note-distortion-fuzz guitar riff song. It used to have a different title before we changed it to what it is.
“Enough to Let Me Go” is actually a big one for me as well, a song that says “do you love me enough to let me go?” It just reminds me after last year in my life, you can’t control other people. You have to work on who you are. You have to be responsible for yourself and your decisions while loving the people around you. You have to let go of control over a certain part of things and realize that what someone else does or doesn’t do is not your burden to carry, even your kids. In a way, you can’t control them. You raise them, you do your absolute best, you do what you’re supposed to do. At a certain level, you have to love them enough to let them go. I think that’s a powerful statement for my life.
What’s next for Switchfoot after you finish this tour out?
We’re going to Japan in May, then we’re going to Europe to open for Bon Jovi this summer. That will be a blast. We’re doing soccer stadiums in Europe with Bon Jovi, so that’s going to be a real highlight of this year. Then we’re going to come back and do a little more touring here in America.
As a guitarist so I’m always drooling over guitars and pedalboards. What is your favorite piece of gear that you get to take on tour with you?
I’m most excited right now about Elliot guitars and Elliot amps. I’m playing that brand of guitars and amps, which is really cool, I’ve never done this before. They’re a custom guitar maker from North Carolina. His name is Andy Elliot and he makes phenomenal guitars. I have actually partnered with him to help design a new amplifier for playing on the road. It’s an Elliot amplifier called the Revenuer, it’s going to be available from Elliot Guitars this year.
Jake is a longtime fan of Christian music, Jesus Freak Cruiser, a techie, and a softball player. He lives in Texas with his wife and daughter.
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